Could computers and robots become conscious? If so, what happens then?

robot teacher
While we're able to make robots that can seriously creep us out like this robot teacher, we haven't been able to give them consciousness. See more robot pictures.
AP Photo/Koji Sasahara

The advancements we've made in computer science and robotics, two young disciplines, are impressive. Moore's Law is a good example of how quickly things can change. Gordon Moore observed in 1965 that the number of transistors that could fit on a silicon chip an inch (2.54 centimeters) in diameter doubled every year. That's a logarithmic growth pattern. While computer scientists would adjust the observation by lengthening the amount of time it takes before we can cram more transistors onto a chip, we've still shrunk transistors down to the nanoscale.

In robotics, engineers have created machines with multiple points of articulation. Some robots have an array of sensors that can gather information about the environment, allowing the robot to maneuver through a simple obstacle course. Honda's ASIMO robot can climb stairs and run. From manufacturing to military applications, robots are making a big impact.


Though computers and robots are more advanced than ever, they're still just tools. They can be useful, particularly for tasks that would either be dangerous to humans or would take too long to complete without computer assistance. But robots and computers are unaware of their own existence and can only perform tasks for which they were programmed.

But what if they could think for themselves? It's a common theme in science fiction. Machines become self-aware, changing the dynamic between man and machine. Could it really happen?


Computer and Robot Consciousness

computer versus brain
Artificial consciousness may never progress further than a simulation of human consciousness.

Whether or not computers or robots can gain consciousness isn't as easy a question as you might think. There is still much we don't know about human consciousness. While programmers and computer scientists create algorithms that can simulate thinking on a superficial level, cracking the code necessary to give consciousness to a machine remains beyond our grasp.

Part of the problem lies with defining consciousness. Eric Schwitzgebel, professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, suggests that the concept is best explained through examples of what consciousness is and what it isn't. Schwitzgebel says that vivid sensations are part of consciousness. You could argue that through sensors, robots and computers can experience -- or at least detect -- stimuli that we would interpret as sensations. But Schwitzgebel also points out other instances of consciousness: inner speech, visual imagery, emotions and dreams are all elements we can experience that machines can't.


Not all philosophers agree upon what is and isn't consciousness. At best, most agree that consciousness rests in the brain. But we don't fully understand the mechanisms that provide consciousness.

Without this understanding, it may be impossible to endow machines with consciousness. It's possible to create programs that mimic thought. These programs might give a machine the ability to recognize and respond to patterns. But ultimately, the machine isn't aware of itself. It's simply responding to commands.

Neurologists and computer scientists could conceivably create an artificial model of a human brain that might produce consciousness. The problem these scientists face isn't trivial. Since we don't have a full understanding of how the brain works, building an artificial version might not be adequate to create actual consciousness.

Despite the challenges, there are teams of engineers and scientists around the world working toward artificial consciousness. It remains to be seen if we'll ever achieve this goal. But assuming we did find a way to give machines consciousness, what happens then?


Robots Are People, Too

It's not hard to feel empathy for ASIMO even though ASIMO can't feel anything.
AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Artificial consciousness could give way to serious ethical questions. If machines become self-aware, could they react in a negative way to the situation they're in? Could machines object to being used as tools? Would they have feelings?

There's a lot of debate on the subject. Since no one has managed to create an artificially conscious machine, it's impossible to say what features it will and won't have. But if machines gain the ability to be self-reflective, it could require us to reconsider the way we think about them. At what point would a machine possess the sort of intelligence and consciousness that would necessitate us bestowing them legal rights? Or would machines remain tools and possibly consider themselves to be slaves?


Conscious machines form the basis of several apocalyptic science fiction tales. Movies like "The Matrix" or "The Terminator" envision a world in which machines have subjugated mankind. These scenarios rely on the concept of self-recursive improvement.

Self-recursive improvement refers to the theoretical ability of a machine to examine itself, recognize ways in which it could improve its own design and then either tweak itself or build new and improved versions of machines. Each generation of machines would be smarter and better designed than the generation before. Futurist Ray Kurzweil suggests that machines will become so adept at improving themselves that before long we would enter an age in which technology evolves at a blisteringly fast pace. We would have to redefine reality because it wouldn't resemble the present at all. He calls this the singularity.

In this world, what happens to humans? In some scenarios, we merge with machines. Artificial and real consciousness become something entirely new. But in other scenarios, the machines come to the conclusion that humans are no longer necessary. At best, the machines ignore us as they continue to build more impressive technology. In the worst case, machines wipe us out either as an act of self-preservation or in revenge.

These scenarios could all be moot -- we may never learn the secret to creating an artificial consciousness. It could be that consciousness is fundamentally physiological and that we can't simulate it artificially. But just in case we do figure it all out, you may want to be a little nicer to your computer.

Learn more about artificial intelligence by following the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

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More Great Links

  • Evans, C.O. "The Subject of Consciousness." George Allen & Unwin Ltd. London. 1970.
  • Gaudin, Sharon. "Intel: Human and computer intelligence will merge in 40 years." Computer World. July 23, 2008. (March 11, 2010)
  • Lovgren, Stefan. "Supercomputing Project Aims to Simulate Human Brain." July 20, 2005. (March 11, 2010)
  • Moore, Gordon. "Cramming more components onto integrated circuits." Electronics. April 19, 1965. Vol. 38, Number 8.
  • Schwitzgebel, Eric. "Defining 'Consciousness.'" The Splintered Mind. May 19, 2008. (March 16, 2010)
  • ThinkQuest. "The Superior Intelligence." (March 11, 2010)
  • Torrance, Steve. "How should we treat them? Remarks on the Ethics of Artificial Consciousness
  • Research." Universities of Sussex and Middlesex UK. September 2003. (March 16, 2010)
  • Torrance, Steve. "The Ethical Status of Artificial Agents - With and Without Consciousness." Universities of Sussex and Middlesex UK. October 2006. (March 16, 2010)
  • Velmans, Max. "Defining Consciousness." Dept. of Psychology, Goldsmiths, London. Dec. 1, 1999. (March 15, 2010)